A Bit 'o Random Musings on Politics, Religion, and Anything Else That Passes Through My Crazy Head

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Torture = Wrong

It's that simple, America.

Reading: More than Just Rainbows

Did you ever watch Reading Rainbow as a kid? I loved that show, because it glorifies one of my favorite activities - reading! Apparently as a child I loved the Mitzi books, and I can remember having my mom read books like Charlotte's Web to us. My mom set up a library shelf in our house, where we could "check out" books and then return them (mostly I think this was a way of preventing messy books everywhere). When I was young I was very into "series" books - I can still remember where all the Boxcar children, Nancy Drew, and Babysitter's club books are in my elementary school library.

One of the first books I remember thinking deeply about was "Wolf by the Ears" - a fictional tale of a slave on Thomas Jefferson's plantation, who may or not be his daughter. It made me ponder (however briefly) the wrongs of slavery, and humanized a problem that might otherwise have been a dry history text.

Reading has been a big part of my life. So, partially because it was National Volunteer Week, but mostly because I didn't have anything better to do, I volunteered last Thursday with a program called First Book. First Book was started by a lady who was tutoring a kid in a tough school. She asked him to bring a book from home that they could read together - and he brought the phone book. She realized that this kid had no books to read at home.

First Book brings volunteers to classrooms in low-income neighboorhoods, and lets schools purchase books for their students at really low prices (like $1-2 per book). Each time I go, I get to spend about 1 1/2 hours reading to kids in an elementary school, and then get to hand each kid a bag with two books of their very own, to take home. It's like being Santa Clause! This is the 3rd time I've done this, and it is so fun to read to the kids and get them excited about the books. I love reading! I lucked out this time and got to read to a really excited group of kindergartners.

I love reading fun and silly books (Harry Potter!), but as I've grown older I've come to appreciate the power of the written word. Reading increases your learning potential, your vocabulary, your knowledge of the world, and can draw you into a world that is created by the author. Great books even have the power to change us for the better.

In reading "The Good Earth" by Pearl S. Buck, I came across this quote, which she uses at the beginning:

"This was what Vinteuil had done for the little phrase. Swann felt that the composer had been content (with the musical instruments at his disposal) to draw aside its veil, to make it visible, following and respecting its outlines with a hand so loving, so prudent, so delicate and so sure, that the sound altered at every moment, blunting itself to indicate a shadow, springing back into life when it must follow the curve of some more bold projection. And one proof that Swann was not mistaken when he believed in the real existence of this phrase, was that anyone with an ear at all delicate for music would at once have detected the imposture had Vinteuil, endowed with less power to see and to render its forms, sought to dissemble (by adding a line, here and there, of his own invention) the dimness of his vision or the feebleness of his hand."

- Swann's Way by Marcel Proust

I understood this to mean that a truly great piece of music (or art, or a great book) can create a world so real and so true that there isn't a false note in it. A good book creates its own world (or, in the case of non-fiction, explains the world really well). This world sounds/looks/is complete and whole in and of itself. I recently read "Ender's Game" for the first time, and I thought this was applicable, because Ender's world is so engrossing. I don't think in reading the book I ever came to a moment that was "fake" (if that even makes sense?).

So, what books are your favorites? What are your favorite "book worlds"? What do you love or hate about reading?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tax Simplification = Tax Reform?

simplification: to make less complex or complicated; make plainer or easier
reform: the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory, etc

It's been awhile since I actually wrote something about politics. And let's face it, taxes are a political issue. Recent TEA parties have argued that taxes are too high, but the truth is that tax rates have stayed relatively constant over the years. In fact, for all the talk about how "progressive" the tax system is (oh, those poor, poor rich people!), recent data show that tax rates are a lot less progressive than you'd think. People talk about tax simplification and tax reform. In reality, any simplification of the internal revenue code is going to be reform.

According to Time magazine, it takes an average of 37 hours to complete a basic 1040 individual tax return. So, many Americans turn to tax professionals, often paying them way too much money to complete what should be a simple task. The tax code has gone from 31 pages in 1913 to more than 3 million words as of 2004.

So, especially at this time of the year, a lot of people are saying we should simplify the tax system. One good example of this is family credits. Say you have kids - you could then be eligible for the dependent care credit, child tax credit, additional child tax credit, and a larger earned income tax credit - in addition to the exemptions you get. Each of these credits is calculated differently. One idea I read about wants to simplify all these into one "family credit" - one amount to streamline things! The problem is this creates winners and losers. If you only have one kid, you would get a bigger credit under this proposal, but if you have lots of kids, you pay less tax under the current "complicated" system.

This leads me to the dirty secret of the Internal Revenue Code: every complication is in there because of us. Someone has either advocated for a tax break, or someone has done something stupid so that the Treasury Department has to issue a regulation or litigate to prevent it. U.S. taxpayers are responsible for every deduction, credit, exemption, and secret rule. Some decisions about taxation are essentially arbitrary - there's no right or wrong (unless one answer benefits you more, apparently). One example of arbitrariness is "depreciation" - how you expense business equipment. Tax laws arbitrarily give items like furniture a "life" over which you expense the cost of a desk, even if the desk sticks around for 50 years.

Our tax code is a reflection of what behaviors we want to encourage or discourage. So, should teachers have a tax break to buy school supplies? Sure! Should we give people tax breaks to improve energy efficiency? Why not! Should corporations be rewarded for hiring people from economically disadvantaged areas? You betcha! Each of these items may be good things, but they add a layer of complexity to the tax code. This benefits people with enough money and political influence to change the tax laws. One recent article described a 2200% return for companies investing in lobbyists because of a sweet tax break they got in 2004.

Some say that we should get rid of all the special tax breaks and lower the rates - that way the tax system would be simpler, and would bring in the same amount of revenue. The problem with that is human nature - politicians are always going to be meddling with deductions (and we'll ask for them). If we lower the rates and abolish special rules, eventually the rules will be added back in and the system will end up bringing in less revenue, further undermining our fiscal health. Essentially, any effort to streamline the tax system is going to be reform, because it's going to have to take away tax breaks and perks for some people - for example, people with kids, homeowners, or those who give a lot to charity. Some proposals take reform to a whole new level, by wanting to abolish the income tax and replace it with a national sales tax. I think this is highly unlikely. However, I am against it mainly because I feel like it hurts the poor the most. If you click here, there's a good description of the pros and cons (obviously, as an accountant, con reason #5 is very important to me).

P.S. I tried to keep this to five paragraphs, but went over. Sorry, I tend to get nerdily excited when I talk about taxes. I think my next political post will be about the other half of my Democratic "tax and spend" mentality.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Jesus is Risen! (Иисус Воскрес!)

It's Easter, a time to celebrate new life and the glorious impossibilities of the resurrection of Jesus Christ!

Happy Easter, everyone! Early this morning, I headed down to the Lincoln Memorial with my mom, cousin, and my cousin's friend from Philly for the Sunrise Easter Service. It was awesome! Sunrise is such a perfect symbol of the hope of the Resurrection.

In Russia, they greet each other on Easter with the saying: Иисус Воскрес! (Jesus is Risen) and the other person responds: Да, истинно воскрес! (Yea, verily is risen!).

The sunrise easter service featured Amos Dodge, a pastor with a lot of personality. It also featured a rockin' choir and orchestra with an electric guitar. Watching the sun rise over the capitol, Washington monument, and reflecting pool while sitting on the steps of the Lincoln memorial was a beautiful experience. I loved singing with people of faith, and the words of this hymn are still ringing in my head:
Light of the world, You stepped down into darkness
Opened my eyes and let me see
Beauty that made this heart adore You
Hope of a life spent with You
Here I am to worship, Here I am to bow down
Here I am to say that You're my God
You're altogether lovely, Altogether worthy
Altogether wonderful to me

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Cheery Cherry Awesome Blossom(s)

Today my Dad and I walked all the way around the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. It was a perfect spring morning, with a gentle breeze and the cherry blossoms in peak condition. It's been eight years since I've been in town for spring, and I have to say that I love it.

At the tidal basin this morning, I just noticed how many people there were, just there enjoying the blossoms. People taking engagement photos. A husband taking photos of his pregnant wife. A family taking their first family photo with their baby (maybe not *first* but close). Mother and daughters taking pictures. A nine-year old trying to get the perfect artistic shot with a cherry blossom branch arching over the Lincoln Memorial. Tourists from many lands taking photos. People holding their dog a certain way to take a picture of it with the cherry blossoms. (Ok, there were a lot of snapshots going on here).

If you've never seen the cherry blossoms on the Tidal Basin, you are missing out - these flowering trees bloom for about two weeks, making a small little paradise in downtown D.C. It combines the beauties of nature with views of the Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington monuments, and, if you don't mind waking up early to miss the tourists, it's a spectacular walk!
Here's my favorite photo, I think I'm seriously gonna frame it:

The world is a truly beautiful place, and today I was/am really glad to be alive!

Other things I love about spring:
- The cheerful daffodils that bob good morning to me as I drive to work.
- Azaleas (these will probably merit a post of their own once they start to blossom)
- Green grass
- Not wearing a coat!!
- Rain & Thunderstorms
This sign made me laugh (especially since my brother's eagle project is going to be protecting cherry blossoms from the beavers who are destroying them!)